Member Dean Bartles had a cushy job running a US $600 million strategic business unit for General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems, a global aerospace and defense company in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he worked for 30 years. But he gave that up in 2014 after he received a call from the founder of UI Labs, asking if he would join the nonprofit as its chief manufacturing officer. Bartles could have retired, but instead he decided to take a chance on a new venture before it had launched. He became its second employee.
UI Labs, based in Chicago, helps companies of all sizes by developing manufacturing technologies and advising its clients on existing applications that could benefit them. Bartles was executive director of the lab’s Digital Manufacturing Design and Innovation Institute, a public-private partnership that works to increase productivity in the United States. He helped to recruit approximately 65 employees as well as more than 300 member companies and universities to join the DMDII consortium. After helping the organization grow and flourish, he went on to found other ventures.
“In my post-retirement years, I’ve become a startup junkie!” he says.
NO LOOKING BACK
At a publically traded company, like General Dynamics, the focus is primarily on short-term profits, Bartles says. “Wall Street expects certain returns each quarter,” he says. “We were so concerned about short-term profits that oftentimes decisions were made that had the potential of adversely affecting our long-term vision.”
After he got the job offer from Caralynn Nowinski Collens, founder and CEO of UI Labs, he realized he didn’t care that much about his salary. He was willing to take a significant cut in overall compensation. “It was so much fun to be part of a brand-new entity,” he says, “where I felt we could have a real positive impact on the greater manufacturing community at large, especially the small- to medium-size manufacturers that make up more than 95 percent of manufacturing companies in the United States. I never looked back.”
His job involved writing grant proposals, recruiting employees, and forming partnerships with companies, government agencies, and universities to address problems in manufacturing. They collaborated on new approaches and technological solutions to help manufacturers become more productive, efficient, and cost-effective.
For example, UI Labs worked with Green Dynamics, a technology company in Costa Mesa, Calif., that makes small wind turbine blades. UI Labs and its partners helped to develop Blade MDA design software, which improved the quality assurance process to ensure Green Dynamics blades meet industry standards.
For Tek Pak, a company in Batavia, Ill., that designs thermoformed packaging for electronics and medical equipment, UI Labs invested $9,500 to improve how its machines make aluminum molds. Previously, it took 125 hours to make each mold, but with UI Lab’s MetalMax software, the time drastically decreased and Tek Pak’s annual profits rose by $72,000 for just one machine. They are now going to implement the technology on three others.
Bartles attributes his success as a first-time entrepreneur to the network of people he established over the years. He has served on dozens of organizations’ boards, all of which were related to advanced manufacturing. That’s why when Collens asked around for second-in-command recommendations, several people gave her Bartles’ name. He then used his network to help build up UI Labs’ reputation and partnerships, spending much of his time traveling to conferences and board meetings where he recruited people to join the venture.
He says his 35 years in industry helped him launch UI Labs, as he incorporated lessons he learned along the way. “You just can’t get that kind of experience at a university,” he says.
A NEW CHAPTER
Bartles left UI Labs in 2016 and has gone on to help found other ventures including the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition. It partners with the U.S. Department of Energy to develop sustainable solutions designed to reduce the manufacturing industry’s environmental footprint, among other projects.
In May he embarked on a new role as director of the John Olson Advanced Manufacturing Center at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham. He is now in charge of designing the center from scratch with the help of a $5 million gift the university received. He is surveying industry leaders to better understand what type of equipment students need training on and what topics to include in the curriculum. After visiting a dozen manufacturing companies, he learned high-precision and automated machinery, human-robot interaction, and big data are what students need to have training in to be prepared for the factories of the future.